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A Kenyan Teen's Discovery: Let There Be Lights To Save Lions

One of the talks from the TED stage in Long Beach, Calif., this week came from Richard Turere, an inventor. He is a Maasai from Kenya. And he's 13.

"From ages six to nine, I started looking after my father's cows," Richard says. "I'd take them out in the morning and bring them back in the evening. We put them in a small cow shed at night," and that's when the trouble would start. Lions would jump in the shed and kill the cows, which are enclosed and an easy target.

Lions are the top tourist attraction to Kenya, especially in the Nairobi National Park, which is near where Richard lives. Lions are also considered critically endangered in Kenya.

The Kenya Wildlife Service estimates there are just 2,000 lions left in the country. One of the main causes of their demise, "is that people kill them in retaliation for lions attacking their livestock," says Paula Kahumbu, executive director of Wildlife Direct, a wildlife conservation organization in Africa.

She has been studying the conflict between humans and lions, and her work led her to Richard. In one week, she monitored over 50 cases where lions attacked livestock. "It's a very, very serious problem," she says.

Her work studying the problem led her to Richard.

One night he was walking around with a flashlight and discovered the lions were scared of a moving light. A light went on inside him and an idea was born.

Three weeks and much tinkering later, Richard had invented a system of lights that flash around the cow shed, mimicking a human walking around with a flashlight. His system is made from broken flashlight parts and an indicator box from a motorcycle.

"The only thing I bought was a solar panel," which charges a battery that supplies power to the lights at night, Richard says. He calls the system Lion Lights.

"There have been a lot of efforts to try to protect the lions," Kahumbu says. "It's a crisis and everyone is looking for a solution. One idea was land leases, another was lion-proof fences. And basically no one even knew that Richard had already come up with something that worked."

His simple solution was so successful, his neighbors heard about it and wanted Lion Lights, too. He installed the lights for them and for six other homes in his community. From there, the lights spread and are now being used all around Kenya. Someone in India is trying them out for tigers. In Zambia and Tanzania they're being used, as well.

To get to the TED stage, Richard traveled on an airplane for the first time in his life. He says he has a lot to tell his friends about when he goes back home, and among the scholars and prize winners, scientists and poets, what impressed him the most on his trip was something he saw at the nearby Aquarium of the Pacific: "It was my first time seeing a shark. I've never seen a shark."

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